ROME, Italy - In tennis, anything can happen - and Exhibit A at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia today was Johanna Konta's career resurgence continuing to gain momentum on clay with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 defeat of Marketa Vondrousova in an all-unseeded quarterfinal.
The Briton, who reached her first final in nearly a year in Rabat two weeks ago, has now reached her biggest semifinal since Wimbledon 2017. That result propelled Konta to a career-high ranking of World No.4 - but that was immediately followed by a precipitous downward slide, and since July 2018 she has stabilized in a rather lower echelon, floating between No.37 and No.50 ever since.
Today's win finally boosts the 28-year-old out of that range - and, just in time for Roland Garros, back into the Top 32 Grand Slam seeding territory, provisionally rising from her current No.42 to at least No.31. It also avenges Konta's only previous encounter with Vondrousova - a 7-6(5), 6-4 loss in the second round of Indian Wells 2018 which counted as the Czech's maiden Top 15 win.
But the surprise this month has less been Konta's resurgence than its location. Clay has rarely been a happy hunting ground for the 2017 Miami champion: prior to this year, she had never won more than three main draw matches on the terre battue in any given season, but in 2019, she has now won nine and counting.
After her third-round win over Venus Williams yesterday, Konta ascribed this less to her ability on clay and more to the timing of her overall form, saying: "It was mainly an issue in the press room." A clean, confident start and finish today bolstered her argument as the two-time major semifinalist betrayed little sign of discomfort on the surface.
Konta came out of the blocks both sharper and with a clearer strategy: after both players saved one break point each in their opening service games, the Rabat runner-up pounced with a brace of booming backhands to break for 2-1. The power of that wing would be an important one for her today, responsible for a large chunk of her 42 winners - but it was also backed up by impressive use of the dropshot, a key part of Konta's repertoire in recent weeks, and judicious forays to the net.
Strong serving ensured that Konta would not have to face another break point in the opening set, and a neat forehand volley on her third set point sealed it with another break of the Vondrousova serve.
The 19-year-old, for her part, had been the most adversely affected by the rigors of Super Thursday yesterday, spending four hours and 25 minutes on court to complete two gruelling three-set wins over No.3 seed Simona Halep and Daria Kasatkina, and she appeared somewhat sluggish to begin with. But Vondrousova - who has won at least three matches in each of her past five tournaments - found the energy to fight back in the second set.
With her feet moving properly, the World No.44 was able to demonstrate the compelling blend of power and touch that had the Pietrangeli crowd chanting her name last night. The dropshot-lob combination proved a particularly effective pattern, and a spectacular running forehand pass sealed the first break of the second set for a 3-2 lead.
Raising her first serve percentage to 64%, this time it was Vondrousova who was impregnable behind her delivery. Anticipating and reaching Konta's dropshots better, the Budapest and Istanbul finalist was now invariably coming out on top of the resultant cat-and-mouse net points - and with that tactic rendered less effective, Konta's aggressive groundstrokes also began to go astray. Just as Konta had in the opener, Vondrousova broke for a second time to seal the set, moving to set point with a delectable lob before leveling the scoreboard with an errant Konta forehand.
With the pattern continuing as the decider got under way, Vondrousova had a break point opportunity to go up 2-0 as Konta continued to struggle with her range. But the former World No.4 came up with another stunning backhand winner to save it - a shot that would prove to be the turning point of the match.
Having failed to press home her advantage, Vondrousova slumped once more. Two double faults and a shanked forehand conceded her serve in the very next game as her sluggishness returned. From there, Konta would seize firm control of the set. Firing her backhand with abandon once more and swarming the net to superb effect, the three-time WTA titlist reeled off the final six games of the match, nailing several ferocious returns to break Vondrousova for the second time and sealing victory after one hour and 53 minutes with a third break as her opponent's forehand sailed long.
Up next in the semifinals for Konta will be another stern test of her claycourt game in the form of Madrid champion and No.7 seed Kiki Bertens, arguably the player to beat on the surface this year.